How 'low' art popped up

Food has engaged the attentions of artists for centuries. Its depiction has preoccupied still-life painters. Game was often shown in 17th-century still lifes, as well as fruit and flowers, as if the hunter/painter in us had survived from the caveman-artist. Some theories claim it was their prey that early humans painted on dim cavern walls. They did not, however, paint nature morte (dead nature), as still life is known in French, but "live nature." They depicted animals living and moving, not just dinner.

In our day, "hunting" tends to take place in supermarkets. It's more a matter of searching shelves for Rice Krispies, orange juice, or a joint of beef than stalking antelope and buffalo over prairies armed with weapons quite unlike shopping carts.

One might imagine that the romance, or the primitive magic, had gone out of food as a subject for artists in today's consumer culture. But the opposite seems to be the case. We even invented a completely new kind of artist, the "commercial artist," at the service of advertisers, promoters, and packagers. Commercial artists are scorned by those who claim to be true artists. The high artist does not lower himself to the level of mere marketing....

Oh no?

In the 1960s, a wave of young artists decided this "high/low" divide was bunk. They quickly became known as "Pop" artists. The label, now a matter of art history, has stuck, even though today many of them are recognized as no less serious than the high artists who, at the time, felt threatened by Pop artists' vitality and frank enjoyment of all the commonplace contemporary images that art was meant to overlook.

Actually, it was a myth that art had become so "fine" and "elitist" that it had lost touch with the world around it. Throughout the half-century preceding Pop Art are many instances of art keeping its feet on the ground by getting involved with the ordinary, the domestic, and the banal.

But the '60s crowd plunged into the shallows with a fresh zest.

Claes Oldenburg and Tom Wesselmann are two strikingly different American artists included in a selection of Pop Art classics at Atlanta's High Museum of Art through Jan. 17, 1999. They are on loan from New York's Museum of Modern Art.

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